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Armando Salguero: Tennessee Titans One Player Away But Apparently Don’t See It

OutKick’s lead NFL columnist Armando Salguero is reporting from the NFL Combine this week.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Tennessee Titans are fooling themselves. Let’s start with that because the evidence is in, it’s in their NFL expert evaluator faces, and they’re giving little indication they see it.

The Tennessee Titans apparently continue to think Ryan Tannehill can be the quarterback to help them win a championship.

And they’re wrong.

(Sorry, Clay.)

The Titans are run by smart football people such as coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson and they’ve built a really good team that fought to the top seed and a first-round playoff bye in the AFC last season, despite not having steamroller running Derrick Henry for nine games.

But when the Titans entered the postseason tournament, all hopeful and full of confidence with Henry back in the lineup, they saw they need more than a great running back and outstanding defense to win big.

They need great quarterback play.

And Tannehill threw three interceptions in his team’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals — a game in which opposing quarterback Joe Burrow overcame 1,203,047 sacks to lead his team to victory.

Burrow did more than show the Titans how it’s done in leading a game-winning field goal drive on the last series. He also offered the Titans a counterpoint to the interception Tannehill threw to give the Bengals the ball in the first place.

Burrow also showed the Titans their future.

Because it’s Burrow, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and perhaps even Los Angeles’s Justin Herbert — all elite quarterbacks — who own the AFC future, as surely as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning owned the conference’s past.

And teams like the Titans, with a solid but not great quarterback, ultimately won’t matter regardless of how well their running game and defense perform in the regular season.

The playoffs offered a painful, undeniable truth for Vrabel and Robinson that they need an upgrade at the most important position. But so far, they’re giving no indication that they see it that way.

They apparently see a need to build around Tannehill. Their championship ride has a tire leaking air and needs to be replaced, but they’re going to patch or upgrade the other tires hoping to overcome the looming flat.

“What that entails is everybody has an expectation,” Vrabel said. “There’s an expectation for a lineman to protect inside out, not get beat inside and making sure we’re firm in the middle of the pocket and making sure we run the edge rushers by.

“Every offensive lineman, we try to teach them their responsibility for ball security. When we’re running routes that we run the right route, when we catch the ball we catch it in the technique we teach it, which is out in front of the body with our hands. As you evaluate the ball security, there were times where, yeah, we threw [17] interceptions but there was quarterback mistakes, protection mistakes, we bounced some off our shoulder pads, that all goes into offensive football.

“That has to be better. It starts with me, it starts with our coaching staff, but also it falls on our players to understand why things happen.”

Understanding how everyone can help avoid mistakes is important, but it kind of misses the point. Because great teams don’t merely avoid mistakes, but rather make great plays in big moments.

And Tannehill has never been that big-play guy in the playoffs.

“Yeah, sure, any quarterback in this league has to be able to do that,” Vrabel said. “Has to be able to have a relationship with guys, get us in the right play, be decisive with the football, stand in the pocket, deliver it under duress, be accurate, make great decisions. Those are all things we’ll always ask of Ryan or whoever is back there.”

The problem with Tennessee’s approach now is Tannehill is not a second- or third-year player who has yet to reach his ceiling. He is 33 years old. He is who he is.

The Miami Dolphins realized this following the 2018 season after trying to build around Tannehill for seven years.

The Titans would be wise to search for a quarterback capable of replacing Tannehill. They definitely could use one to at least compete with Tannehill to force him to raise his play or replace him.

So as the Titans this offseason are figuring out if they can re-sign center Ben Jones and how to lower Taylor Lewan’s, Bud Dupree’s, Kevin Byard’s and Roger Saffold’s high salary cap numbers, they should also figure out if one of the quarterbacks in this coming draft can be that possible Tannehill replacement.

“It is something we are mindful of,” Robinson said. “We work through those guys, and we are trying to find those guys that may be within striking distance that may not come in and start. But you see a future for those guys, and we are doing that with this group here.

“Not saying we will take one, but part of what our job is to look at all of the position groups and see how and if they may make sense for our football team and what path or what direction we would go down with these guys.”

There’s only one path for the Titans if they want to win a championship: Stop fooling themselves.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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